By ROB NOVIT Senior writer The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sees the potential in a Star Academy grant application to assist overage Aiken County seventh-graders but won't fund the ambitious project. The Aiken County School District and Public Education Partners collaborated earlier this year on a grant proposal seeking $19 million from the Gates Foundation. PEP Director Diane Mangiante said she talked with Teresa Rivero, the Southeastern education initiatives coordinator for the foundation. Rivero told Mangiante that the STAR Academy proposal "looked solid." However, the Gates program is focusing on policy issues in six other states, including North Carolina, as well as Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Portland, Ore. "It was disappointing," Mangiante said. "We felt we finally had a critical mass of grassroots and legislators all on the same page with us." The decision from the Gates Foundation also puts a $1.2 million allocation from the S.C. General Assembly in limbo. That appropriation is intended as matching funds, contingent upon the Gates Foundation approving the grant application. If the grant had been successful, the Star Academy annually would have targeted as many as 480 seventh-graders who had failed one or more classes and were at risk of dropping out of school. Each of the seven county high schools would have gotten a specialized, ninth-grade academy within their schools. The Star Academy approach would enable all the seventh-graders to go on to high school to start eighth-grade work and move into ninth-grade classes through an accelerated program. The students would have their own teachers and would utilize a Synergistic Lab computer system. Such labs currently provide career exploration at LBC Middle School and science and math enrichment at Schofield Middle School. Dr. Bill Gallman, the school district's interim superintendent, said Mangiante and the PEP board had worked hard to develop a wonderful plan. "It means we can't move forward as soon as we had hoped for dealing with a segment of our population that could have profited from those labs," he said Mangiante said Friday she has no intention of giving up hope on the project. The concept has seen tremendous success in smaller programs in the state, and PEP and school officials were ready to take the approach to a much larger scale. "We definitely have the attention and support of legislators," Mangiante said. "We hoped the Gates Foundation would help us with this project. If not, we'll have to find other funds and do it ourselves."